Every time a celebrity dies of a drug overdose, I brace myself. For the inevitable I-don’t-give-a-shit-if-someone-kills-themselves-with-drugs-those-selfish-nogood-worthless-bastards updates and posts that are about to pepper my news feed.
I feel other things, too, of course. Sadness. Unease. Empathy. Frustration.
But the part that drags on is a simmering anger at the way that some people feel the need to lash out at dead addicts. Live ones, too, but the verbal vitriol hits a crescendo when there’s a celebrity who is no longer alive on whom they can focus their dispassioned rage and righteous indignation.
One post, the day after Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s death, from a friend who has a knack for setting me on edge (so much so that I’ve hidden his feed more than once), sat in my gut like a boulder and circled in my brain for days. This is no tragedy, he said. Sad, sure, but tragedy is the father who dies of cancer, the police officer or soldier killed in the line of duty, etc etc etc.
Others, more often friends of friends, railed against the bad choices, the selfishness, the sheer rudeness of someone killing themself that way. Especially with young children. Those assholes don’t deserve sympathy. They killed themselves. They didn’t even care about their kids.
Here’s the thing that always, also, rings in my head over and over and over. If you never once tried drugs, or alcohol, or ate so much that you may have potentially compromised your health, or inhaled the sweet smell of rubber cement a little too long when you were in elementary school or drove home after a few drinks and realized the next morning that you were not in any shape to have driven – then line yourself up with the handful of other people this might be true for and pat yourselves on the back for being shining examples of The People Who Never Make Bad Choices. You all deserve a badge or a parade or something.
The rest of you (myself included): shut the fuck up with the hate and venom and dissmissiveness.
Take a moment to imagine that it is only sheer luck, not your higher moral standing, that separates you from the dead ones. The strung out ones. The loneliest of the lonely.
I have family who are addicts. Some dead, some alive. Some clean, some not. Friends, too. One thing I can say with absolute certainty is that I made most of the same bad choices they did. You probably did, too. More than once. At least once.
When my sister was in her first stint in rehab, we talked a lot about the difference(s) between her and I. Why she couldn’t stop until she was almost dead. Why I always could.
Why I could try something and then decide I didn’t want to do it anymore. There are all kinds of possible reasons and none of them explain it. We both have addiction riddled on both sides of our families. We both used various things to excess. I could always get to a point where I made a rational decision to walk away from whatever it was I was abusing. She almost never could.
Why her and not me? There’s a lot of that question that can never be answered. Is it a disease? Maybe. Maybe not. Does she have a genetic predisposition that I somehow dodged? Doesn’t even matter to me if it is either of those things, insofar as my compassion for those struggling with addiction is what it is and will not change whether we uncover an ‘addiction gene’ or not.
None of us know what makes you an addict and keeps me from being one.
What I do know is:
I did the same things as her when I was younger. And I do not struggle every day with a desire to use. I never have. And it’s not because I am better than her. Or even smarter. Or a better citizen and sister and daughter and human.
I remember reading a quote in an article around the time that Amy Winehouse died. To the effect that addicts don’t use to try to kill themselves – they use in order to try to live.
To try to live.
No addict, in my opinion, puts a needle in her arm in order to vex the people who love them. Russian Roulette? Sure. But so is eating processed foods over and over and over. So is texting while you drive. And on and on and on.
I won’t even spend time going into the ways that the self-medicating of undiagnosed mental illness often leads to addiction. Or the ways that overeating and eating processed or ‘unhealthy’ foods can lead to disease and that one could call that selfish and deem you a bad parent if a diet-induced heart attack takes you away from your children. Bad choices, all of us, all over the place.
I don’t see a difference, really, between those of us who quickly kill ourselves and those of us who do it slowly and legally. Except in the swiftness and severity with which drugs isolate people from the ones they love – temporarily or permanently.
Except in the way we treat an addict’s death as open season for judgment.
Except in the way some of us use an addict’s death to feel better about our own lives, our own choices.
I have had to cut people out of my life, my sister included, at times where her ‘choices’ were something I couldn’t condone. I know the knee-collapsing pain of kicking her out of my house because I couldn’t allow it even one more time.
My compassion for addicts does not exempt me from intense anger at and pain from what addiction does to a person, to a family, to friends. I have never thought, though, that she (or anyone else struggling with addiction) should just go ahead and die. I have never felt the deep sadness of a family member dying from an overdose lightened by saying that they deserved it. I have never felt the need to diminish the epic sadness of an overdose.
And sure, celebrities are easy targets. They have fame. They have money. They have fans. How could they not be happy?
And sure, we don’t bombard social media with sadness and compassion whenever a homeless person in our neighborhood ODs. Some of us, though, if we knew that (when we know that), would (and do) feel just as sad. Just as scared. For those we love. For those we know. For what might happen to them. For the loss of a life at the hand of something so invasive and tragic.
Phillip Seymour Hoffman is just the most recent, recognizable face to have lost a battle with addiction. And so we mourn. Some of us. To varying depths. For the loss of a life. For the loss of some stunningly beautiful acting that we will never see. For his children. The tragedy no more or less had he died suddenly of a brain aneurysm that we could smugly say was not his fault.
I will not apologize for my sadness. I will not apologize for not thinking that someone was too weak to quit. Not, either, for seeing that we are all too weak to make all the right choices all of the time. And some of us (thankfully, me) made a lot of bad choices and with an ease not afforded all, could walk away and start anew. I could just decide to do that. For that, I am not sorry, either.
Go ahead and refuse the reality of addiction. Sit high and smug and separate. I hope you never need prescription pain killers for an extended amount of time and realize, when you find yourself hoarding more and more and more, that the Russian Roulette you played was believing that the gun had no bullets at all just because you were smart enough not to load it yourself. I sincerely do.
Sometimes, you don’t realize you have a gun in your hand and there’s a bullet tucked in there, waiting for you, until you do. And, sometimes, that’s not soon enough.
The stupidity of picking up that gun at all in the first place doesn’t negate the true tragedy of addiction.
If you want to dismiss the death of someone because their struggle was with addiction, then keep your bullshit to yourself. Please.
You have a right to think whatever you want. That’s true. But there’s no crime in allowing others to grieve when they feel grieving is necessary.
Death is sad. However it happens.
Loneliness – and that is what is at the core, in the last moments, for nearly every drug overdose – is tragic.
Tragedy is not the wrong word. Not if, to me, that kind of death is a tragedy.
And it is. Always.